Greg Cote

Whale-watching Riley better make sure Miami Heat keeps whale it already has

Hassan Whiteside will be spending his Sunday afternoon at the National YoungArts Foundation, just up the street from the downtown bayside arena, in an appearance to help support an NBA-sponsored national 3-on-3 basketball tournament swinging through Miami.

It’s where Whiteside will be a few days later that should worry the Heat.

In the wooing clutches of Dallas Mavericks owner Mark Cuban is where Whiteside will begin NBA free agency after it officially opens Friday. Miami Heat potentate Pat Riley calls keeping Whiteside “our No. 1 priority, period.” But it will be Cuban who will have the young center’s ear and attention first in trying to pry him away.

This might concern the Heat and its fans for a couple of reasons.

First, the intentions and mind-set of the mercurial Whiteside are impossible to know or read. Will he be loyal to the Heat for giving him his big chance after so many other teams did not? Or will he be all about the money in this first get-rich-quick opportunity of his career and life?

I mean, how will it play with Whiteside if Cuban and perhaps other suitors, reportedly including Portland, Golden State and the Los Angeles Lakers, are unequivocally offering max contracts while Riley is delicately trying to cajole him to stay for less in the quixotic dream of also landing his “whale,” Kevin Durant?

Second, that it’s Cuban with first dibs on Whiteside in free agency also is notable. Cuban does not like the Miami Heat. He remains convinced, 10 years later, that Miami stole the 2006 NBA Finals from Dallas.

ESPN recently asked Cuban to discuss that Finals and he would not, explaining, “You’re asking me for a root canal.” But earlier this year he said in an interview that ’06 “will go down in history as the worst-officiated Finals in the history of the game.”

It was during that Finals, you’ll recall, when Cuban screamed at then-commissioner David Stern after a game in Miami and was later fined $250,000 for “several acts of misconduct.”

Cuban and Dallas got their revenge in winning the 2011 NBA title over Miami in LeBron James’ first season here. Still, no psychology degree is required to imagine Cuban might feel added satisfaction to now also steal Riley’s “No. 1 priority, period,” from the franchise that caused him so much hurt and anger in 2006.

With Whiteside as the literal and figurative centerpiece, this figures to be a fascinating free agency period, again, for Miami and also league-wide.

The NBA keeps winning the offseason. It’s almost as if things don’t get really interesting until the Finals end.

Just in the past few days we have seen Derrick Rose traded to the Knicks, Serge Ibaka traded to the Magic, and a draft in which Ben Simmons went No. 1 overall to the 76ers.

Now it’s about ratchet up as the Durant sweepstakes begin and we see the ripple effect of that on cities such as Miami, whose Heat — although a long-shot — is reportedly among the teams that will be granted a meeting with him.

LeBron is a pending free agent, too, of course, and wasn’t it Stephen A. Smith who reported James might consider a return to Miami if Cleveland won the NBA championship? Yes. But the very day of the championship parade this week LeBron stated, “I love it here in Cleveland. I have no intentions of leaving. That’s right from the horse’s mouth.”

Then again, “no intentions” leaves wiggle room. Intentions can change. Besides, LeBron remaining in Cleveland is not nearly as much fun as the speculation he might try to assemble an all-friends super team, perhaps joining buddy Chris Paul with the Los Angeles Clippers and bringing along Carmelo Anthony (and maybe Dwyane Wade, too) just for fun.

This free agency season will have been anticlimactic indeed if both James stays put and Durant ultimately decides to remain in Oklahoma City. But imagine if LeBron did form that all-friends super team and Durant signed with Golden State?

Those are seismic moves other sports cannot duplicate. Only in the NBA can the uniform change of generational superstars instantly alter the landscape of the league.

Back in Miami, there is little doubt that Wade, a pending free agent again, again will remain a Heat lifer. Nothing but humidity is a greater constant in Miami than Wade on the roster.

The Heat has the salary-cap money to re-sign both Whiteside and Wade. Almost nobody thinks Miami can keep both and also get into a negotiating room with Durant. But all that counts is if the big-dreaming Riley thinks it.

The dilemma and risk: That if Riley tries to get Whiteside on the cheap or asks him to be patient and withhold a decision in a long-shot pursuit of his whale Durant, Miami could end up seeing both prizes sign elsewhere.

It would be prudent for Riley to concede that landing Durant isn’t plausible, and instead shift the franchise focus unequivocally to fending off Cuban and other suitors and re-signing Whiteside to a max contract.

The question is whether Riley, the wonderfully audacious deal closer still dreaming of his whale, is capable of being prudent and safe.

Riley insisted Whiteside is the Heat’s “No. 1 priority, period.”

Almost time to prove it.

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